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Title:  The Impact of Mining on American History
Level:  Primary/Middle
Time:  30-60 Minutes


Show mining's impact of history.


  1. Paper
  2. web site

Background Information:

Coal has always served a variety of important uses in our society.  We burned it to heat our homes, and it powered the nation’s railroads and factories.  Today we use it for electricity.  Coal supplies the energy for 55% of the electricity and about one fourth of the total energy produced in the United States.  In the future coal will continue to be used as a valuable upgraded product in high-value, specialized markets such as carbon filters and coke for the steel industry.

There are very few references to the early uses of coal.  Aristotle referred to “bodies that have more of earth than smoke” and called them charcoal-like rock.  (Biblical references to coal are to charcoal rather than to the sedimentary rock, coal.)  Coal was used commercially by the Chinese long before it was utilized in Europe.  Although no authentic record is available, coal from the Fu-shun mine in northeastern China may have been employed to smelt copper as early as 1000 B.C.  That is about 3,000 years ago.  Cast-iron Chinese coins dating to about the 1st century BC are thought to have been made using coal.  Stones used as fuel were said to have been produced in China during the Han dynasty (206BC-AD 220).

Coal cinders found among Roman ruins in England suggest that the Romans were familiar with its use before AD400.  The first documented proof that coal was mined in Europe was provided by the monk Reinier of Liege, who wrote (about 1200) of black earth very similar to charcoal used by metalworkers.  Other historical records contain numerous references to coal mining in England, Scotland, and continental Europe throughout the 13th century.

The exact date of the first coal use in the United States is not known.  However, historians have found evidence that by AD1000, Hopi Indians used coal to bake pottery.  By the 1300’s the Hopi’s were using coal for heating and cooking.  The first recorded discovery of coal in this country was by French explorers.  A reference to coal is found in the accounts of the 1673-1674 expedition of Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, who discovered coal near the Illinois River.

Around 1701, coal deposits were found by Huguenot settlers in Manakin on the James River, near present-day Richmond Virginia.  This site was also where the earliest recorded commercial mining occurred in 1748.  During the American Revolution (1775-1783), coal from this location was used in the manufacture of weapons for the American troops.  Until this time, most coal used in the American colonies came from England or Nova Scotia.  Wartime shortages and the needs of the munitions manufacturers spurred on small American coal mining operations.

On April 13, 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker was the first recorded person to discover and use coal in Kentucky.  Other deposits of coal were found in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.  In 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made the first reported discovery of coal west of the Mississippi, along the banks of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.  By the 1830’s mining companies had emerged throughout the Appalachian region and along the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers.

Until the late 1800’s, relatively little use was made of coal in the U.S., partly because of the abundance of wood in the extensive forests.  The demand for coal increased when the construction of canals and railroads provided more economical means of moving it to the market.  Wood, however, remained the predominant fuel in the U.S. until some years after the American Civil War.  The growth of the railroad industry and introduction of the steam locomotive, followed by the rise of the steel industry spurred a tremendous growth in the American coal industry.

The burning of coal to generate electricity is a relative newcomer in the long history of this fossil fuel.  It was just about 100 years ago that coal became one of the fuels producing most of the electricity for homes and factories.  Today coal supplies about half of the electricity produced in the United States and 95% of the electricity produced in Kentucky.


Construct a timeline using the above article.  Illustrate with pictures from the web site.